A workplace in which employees are engaged without being accountable is unsustainable. Accountability is critical to any human operation in which work must get done efficiently, effectively, and within budget. More importantly, it also has a major impact on top performers and overall employee engagement.

Consider a workplace environment where some employees are highly engaged (“A” players), while others are unaccountable for meeting deadlines and consistently perform at a substandard level. This is a workplace designed to frustrate those committed to exemplary workplace behaviors. A and B players need to work with equally committed co-workers. When high performers work alongside disengaged employees, their incentive to work at full capacity diminishes.

Over time, when leaders fail to address the disparity in accountability, the result is a contagion of frustration, under-performance, and malaise that drags down the entire enterprise. In this environment, companies also see a drop in productivity, product and service quality, worker retention, and employee wellness.

In other words, leaders will always come up short on producing a highly engaged workforce if they don’t first achieve a culture of accountability.

Some of the most common obstacles to accountability for individuals are learned helplessness (“I’m not smart enough to get this right.”), a victim mentality (“This never would have happened if the team hadn’t abandoned me on this project.”), and grudge collecting (“This is just another example of senior leaders showing they don’t care about us.”).

In these cases, managers must develop non-punitive strategies to challenge the problematic behavior, such as offering guidance for more positive and effective performance, redirecting employees toward problem-solving, and listening and affirming employee concerns immediately followed by the mutual development of an action plan going forward.

Organizational Barriers to Accountability

Lack of accountability can manifest itself with individuals, but it can also be fostered by an organization that tolerates the conditions that lead to it. Institutional habits, left uncorrected, can encourage a lack of accountability by undermining clarity about who is responsible for what. An organization (and its leaders) with unclear priorities, a silo mentality, or habitual conflict avoidance inevitably corrodes accountability.

To prevent the deterioration of accountability in their organizations, senior leaders can focus on more inclusive decision making, agreeing on outcomes and priorities as a group, and ensuring clear and open communication organization-wide. This helps clarify the organization’s goals and responsibilities for achieving them. For example, employees typically perform better when they understand why what they are doing specifically contributes to organizational success. In short, managers and senior leaders bear responsibility for establishing the conditions that encourage employees to be accountable.

Creating a Culture of Accountability

How do they do that? First, leaders must hold themselves to high standards in developing relationships that promote trust with employees, and help others do the same. By demonstrating integrity, follow-through, competence, and openness to feedback, they help create a culture of accountability.

Recent discoveries in neuroscience describe a human brain that yearns for emotional safety and security. People perform best when they feel safe, both physically and emotionally. Inconsistent accountability in a workplace erodes the trust that people feel in the leadership, flooding the brain with feelings of insecurity. This is not conducive to engagement or high performance, or ultimately to improved business outcomes.

Action Steps:

  • Read the chapter on accountability in my book, Thrive by Design: The Neuroscience that Drives High Performance Cultures.
  • Consider how you can strengthen the accountability of your team or organization. Are there employees who need to be held more accountable? Are you allowing individual or organizational obstacles interfere with accountability?
  • Communicate constantly with your employees about their performance. Ask questions that can help them focus on the solutions rather than the problems. Provide the resources necessary for employees to achieve their goals.
  • Hold yourself and senior leaders to high standards in order to create a culture of accountability.

Download a free chapter of my book for more ideas about building a high-performance culture.